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Theological Foundations of Charity: Catholic Social Teaching, The Social Gospel, and Tikkun Olam

Theological Foundations of Charity: Catholic Social Teaching, The Social Gospel, & Tikkun Olam

By Catherine A. Paul and Alice W. Campbell

The influence of religion can be found in almost every aspect of United States history. In the history of American social welfare, charitable works have often grown out of religious beliefs — beliefs that inspired reformers to deep compassion, firm ethical convictions, and a strong sense of justice. Reformers’ faith backgrounds were the foundation of movements such as abolition, temperance, and the establishment of settlement houses. And from the nation’s earliest days, religious groups and individuals have provided significant labor and financial support for social reform and humanitarian aid.

American religious life is, of course, tremendously varied, but three prominent strains of religious thought have inspired and informed much social action. Catholic Social Teaching, The Social Gospel, and the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam represent distinct ways of considering the relationship between belief and social responsibility; between God’s actions and humanity’s. The following article briefly explores these three theological foundations of charity.

Catholic Social Teaching

Emblem of the Papacy: Triple tiara and keys
Emblem of the Papacy:
Triple tiara and keys
Image: Public Domain

Catholic Social Teaching (CST) embodies the Catholic Church’s mission in action, helping Catholics to relate to the world and address its problems. CST provides a foundation from which Catholics may understand social, political, and economic issues through historical, political, and social analyses. As described in 1 Corinthians 13:13 of the Christian scriptures, the three theological virtues are faith, hope, and charity. Charity is repeatedly translated as “love,” and is the virtue by which Christians demonstrate their love of God above all things (Catholic Social Teaching, n.d.).

CST was conceptualized in 1891 with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, or “Of New Things,” as a result of the wealth gap between the rich and the poor and the obstacles faced by the working classes (Fitzgerald, 2011). Rerum Novarum both asserts the value of the Catholic Church’s insight into “the social question” and admits that the Catholic Church’s teaching on social problems are not sufficient for effective action. Thus, this encyclical set the stage for interdisciplinary social justice thinking and work, promoting collaborative action with politicians and social scientists (Yuengert, 2012). Pope Leo XIII emphasized the need for different classes to exist in harmony; though they are distinct, social classes are interdependent on one another. Likewise, he asserted that the poor’s lack of wealth is not due to moral depravity, but rather the consequence of capitalism and social dislocation (Fitzgerald, 2011).

In 1931, Pope Pius XI wrote Quadragesimo Anno, or “In the 40th Year,” which refers to the 40 years since Rerum Novarum. Pope Pius XI similarly asserted the role of the Catholic Church in undertaking social and economic inequalities, reaffirming that the Church should be involved with “all things that are connected with the moral law.” Pope John XXIII followed in Pope Pius IX’s footsteps, describing in his 1961 encyclical on Christianity and social progress, Mater et Magistra, that Christianity is “the meeting point of earth and heaven.” As such, Pope John XXIII believed in the practical application of social doctrine, and he highly criticized the materialism that was preventing economic justice from taking precedence in society. Pope John XXIII called on the laity to live out and apply CST to their religious and secular lives (Yuengert, 2012).

Pope Paul VI’s 1965 encyclical Gaudium et Spes provided an overview of the Catholic Church’s role in addressing economics, poverty, social justice, culture, science, technology, and ecumenism.  He claimed that social science need not be “Christianized” to be useful to CST; rather, CST and secular science should be used in conjunction with one another (Yuengert, 2012). Thus, CST is not intended for Catholics alone and should be used to address the universal human needs of the global community (Brenden, 2007).

At the time of this article, the most recent encyclical on CST was Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 Caritas in Veritate, or “Charity in Truth,” which offered a detailed reflection on economic and social issues and a body of principles by which these issues may be judged (Catholic Social Teaching, n.d.). Currently, the seven principles of CST are the following:

  1. Life and Dignity of the Human Person: All people are sacred and made in the image and likeness of God.
  2. Call to Family, Community and Participation: The human person is both sacred and social, and when one suffers, we all suffer.
  3. Rights and Responsibilities: People have a fundamental right to life, food, shelter, health care, education, and employment.
  4. Option for the Poor and Vulnerable: The moral test of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable members.
  5. The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers: The economy exists to serve people, not the other way around.
  6. Solidarity: We are called to work globally for justice.
  7. Care for God’s Creation: The earth is the Lord’s, so we must love, protect, and respect it (Catholic Charities, n.d.).

Liberation theology, which came out of Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s, draws heavily upon the tradition of CST. Liberation theology is often associated with the preferential option for the poor and Marxist economic ideas (Kirwan, 2012).

The Social Gospel

Walter Rauschenbusch wearing a suit and tie. He has a beard.
Walter Rauschenbusch
Photo: Dare We Be Christians (1914)

The Social Gospel was a Protestant social reform movement that lasted from approximately 1870 through 1920. Coming out of the Second Great Awakening, and at times related to Christian Perfectionist thinking, the Social Gospel was concerned with both individual and societal salvation. Seeking to build “the Kingdom of God on earth” many Social Gospel theologians focused on issues such as temperance, abolition, and the alleviation of problems arising from industrialization.

Prominent liberal Protestant ministers such as Washington Gladden and Lyman Abbott looked to Charles Monroe Sheldon’s In His Steps: “What Would Jesus Do?” and Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis for inspiration and guidance on important issues of the time, especially labor reform. Social Gospel proponents became concerned with the abolition of child labor, a shorter workweek, living wages, and factor regulations (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2016).

According to the Social Gospel movement, to honor God, people are called to set aside their earthly desires and serve others, especially society’s most vulnerable. The legacy of the Social Gospel Movement can be seen in many social welfare reforms. Most notably, the Social Gospel inspired the creation of settlement houses (Ohio History Connection, n.d.). Jane Addamsinfluential work, Twenty Years At Hull House, demonstrated that the Social Gospel movement was a religious movement within the larger Progressive Era. Addams’ book synthesized Christianity and modernity, emphasizing the importance of Christianity’s ability to meet the needs of the vulnerable. Unlike CST, Social Gospel considered religious ritual and tradition an impediment to social reform. Thus, great importance was placed on practicality, scientific government, facts, figures, and statistics (Harnish, 2011).

Walter Rauschenbusch, defining theologian of the Social Gospel Movement, described history as “the workshop of a living God” (Fitzgerald, 2011). Therefore, Christianity would lose its worth if it did not address the lived realities of vulnerable peoples, especially laborers (Fitzgerald, 2011). Many important Social Gospel theologians promoted a Biblically-derived form of socialism, which they called, “Christian Socialism” (Fitzgerald, 2011). To followers of the Social Gospel, Christian Socialism represented the interconnectedness of individual and societal welfare to the Bible’s mandate to love others (Fitzgerald, 2011). Likewise, those involved in the Social Gospel movement refuted Social Darwinism; greed, rather than the personal failings of the “unfit” resulted in marginalization and inequality (Bateman, 2009). Thus, this form of socialism acted as a middle ground between an individualist and collectivist society (Fitzgerald, 2011). 

This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.

This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.

Tikkun Olam

From its beginning, Jewish Law has been concerned with ethical behavior and justice. In addition to teachings about the individual’s relationship to the community, adherents to the Law are encouraged to be a “light unto the nations,” thus encouraging ethical actions on the part of non-Jews. (Dan, 2011)

Tikkun Olam (Hebrew characters)
Tikkun Olam
Image: Public Domain

Tikkun Olam (translated from the Hebrew as “repair of the world”) is a Jewish concept which has for many become synonymous with social action and the pursuit of social justice. It is a central tenet of Reform Judaism, one of numerous movements within the Jewish faith.

While Reform Judaism began in the 19th century, the phrase tikkun olam is an ancient one that may be found in the Mishnah, a body of rabbinic teachings compiled in the 3rd century. During the sixteenth century, Jewish mystics took up the concept to describe humans’ role in a world filled with both good and evil. These followers of Lurianic Kabbalah believed that pious actions would advance the redemption of the world. The phrase is also included in the Aleinu, a congregational prayer recited at the end of all three daily prayer services (Rackman, 1999; MJL Staff).

Today, tikkun olam has come to be understood broadly as the individual’s responsibility to change and improve the world for himself, for others, and for future generations. For many, tikkun olam expresses the idea that humans, not God, bear responsibility for returning the earth to a state of holiness.

Tikkun olam brings together a number of other important ideas that describe one’s relationship and responsibilities to God and to the community. It involves the fulfillment of mitzvot (commandments) and the carrying out of tzedakah (justice or righteousness) as well as acts of g’milut hasadim (acts of loving kindness). Helping those in need, visiting the sick, comforting mourners, practicing hospitality and philanthropy are all examples of holy work. But, while individual acts are important and play a part in tikkun olam, the idea primarily relates to the larger aim of societal change and a return to the purpose for which the world was created (Noparstak; Tikkun Olam, 1997).

For further reading:

Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching, courtesy of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)

Catholic Social Teaching 101: Videos and Materials, courtesy of Catholic Relief Services (CRS)

Social Gospel Movement, courtesy of Ohio History Central 

Essays on the Social Gospel by Adolf Harnack & Wilhelm Herrmann, courtesy of the Internet Archive

The Social Gospel, courtesy of The Pluralism Project, Harvard University

“Tikkun Olam” by LIM and Yoshiwaku, courtesy of the Internet Archive

Arthur Waskow, The Spiritual Roots of Tikun Olam, Q & A, courtesy of the Internet Archive


Baskin, J.R. (2011) Tikkun Olam: Contemporary Understandings. in The Cambridge Dictionary of Judaism and Jewish Culture. J.R. Baskin, ed. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 609.

Brenden, M. A. (2007). Social work for social justice: Strengthening social work practice through the integration of Catholic Social Teaching. Social Work & Christianity, 34(4), 471-497.

Catholic Charities. (n.d.). The seven principles of Catholic Social Teaching. Catholic Charities. Retrieved from

Catholic Social Teaching. (n.d.). Glossary. Catholic Social Teaching. Retrieved from

Dan, J. (2011). Tikkun Olam. in The Cambridge Dictionary of Judaism and Jewish Culture. J.R. Baskin, ed. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 609.

Encyclopedia Britannica. (2016). Social Gospel. In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from

Fitzgerald, C. S. (2011). Looking back to move forward: Christian social thought, religious traditionalism, and welfare theory. Social Work & Christianity, 38(3), 267-292.

Gemilut Hasidim 101. My Jewish Learning. Retrieved from

Harnish, B. (2011). Jane Addams’s Social Gospel synthesis and the Catholic response: Competing views of charity and their implications. The Independent Review, 16(1), 93-100.

Kirwan, M. (2012). Liberation theology and Catholic Social Teaching. New Blackfriars, 93(104), 246-258. Retrieved from

MJL Staff. Tikkun Olam: Repairing the World. My Jewish Learning. Retrieved from

Noparstak, Jennifer. “Tikkun Olam.” Learning to Give. Retrieved from

Ohio History Connection. (n.d.). Social Gospel Movement. Ohio History Central. Retrieved from

Rackman, E., Broyde, M. and Fishkin A.L. (1999). Halakhah, Law in Judaism (1999). The Encyclopedia of Judaism, Vol. I. Neusner, Jacob, et al. eds. New York: Continuum, 345.

Social Gospel (2005). Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford University Press.

Tikkun Olam : Social Responsibility in Jewish Thought and Law (1997). David Shatz, Chaim I. Waxman, Nathan J. Diament eds. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson.

Yuengert, A. (2012). Economics and interdisciplinary exchange in Catholic Social Teaching and “Caritas in Veritate.Journal of Business Ethics, 100(1), 41-54.  

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Paul, C. A., & Campbell, A. W. (2017). Theological foundation of charity: Catholic Social Teaching, the Social Gospel, & tikkun olam. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from

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